(SHO lem a LAY kem)
When Samuel Langhorne Clemens began to write, he adopted the pen name Mark Twain, a common shout among riverboat pilots on the Mississippi river.
When Sholem Rabinovich began to write, he adopted the pen name Sholem Aleichem, a common Yiddish greeting whose most accurate translation would be, “Peace be unto ya’ll” or “Peace be unto youse.”
Mark Twain gave us Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a celebration of everyday river life in 1800s America.
Sholem Aleichem gave us Tevye the Milkman and Fiddler on the Roof, a celebration of everyday Jewish life in 1800s Russia.
Both men had similar styles of writing and both were known for their audacious wit. Either might have said, “A bachelor is a man who comes to work each morning from a different direction.” (But in this case it was Sholem Aleichem.)
One might assume the Russian writer adopted the trademarks of the American Mark Twain to become an East European version of that famous humorist and philosopher but that assumption would be incorrect. When Sholem Aleichem came to the United States in 1905, Twain sought him out and confessed that he considered himself to be “the American Sholem Aleichem.”
When Sholem Aleichem died in New York in 1916, 100,000 mourners gathered at his funeral.
Instructions were left for his family and friends to “select one of my stories, one of the very merry ones, and recite it in whatever language is most intelligible to you.” “Let my name be recalled with laughter,” he added, “or not at all.” These annual readings of the wit, audacity and rich philosophy of Sholem Aleichem have continued each May to the present day, and in recent years have become open to the public.
Sholem Aleichem said things few men dared to say.
And he made a difference in the culture of his day.
Leonard Pitts is another man like Sholem Aleichem.
A columnist syndicated by the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts first came to my attention on July 12, 2001, when Pennie handed me our newspaper and pointed to a scathing review of the just-released movie, Baby Boy. Midway through the review, Pitts began firing word bullets aimed with the precision of a champion marksman:
Everybody should have a white man. Even white men should have a white man.
Because when you have a white man, nothing is ever your fault. You're never required to account for your own failings or take the reins of your own destiny. The boss says, “Why haven’t you finished those reports, Bob?” and you say, “Because of the white man, sir.”
I'm not here to sell you some naive nonsense that racism no longer exists. One has only to look around with open eyes to see that it continues to diminish the fiscal, physical and emotional health of African-American people. All of us are obligated to raise our voices in protest of this awful reality.
But black folks are also obligated to live the fullest lives possible in the face of that reality. To live without excuses.
Leonard Pitts works hard to understand the perspective of America's white majority. Are you willing to work to understand the perspectives of America's Black and Brown minorities?
Are you willing, as a white person, to speak up to your white friends as boldly as Leonard Pitts spoke to the black community?
Will you, as part of a cultural minority, work to understand the actions of those who frustrate you?
Will you listen and contemplate and use wit and humor to open the eyes of those who don't see clearly?
If so, I want you to apply for a scholarship to become one of Wizard Academy's World Changers for 2008. We're going to approach this racism thing from a whole new direction.